Mothers in the communities we serve are some of the strongest women I have met. They wake up as early as 4:00 am to start cooking for the day, attend to their animals, and take care of their children. Often times, they walk for several hours with their baby on their back in a colorful manta—a walk I would struggle with even without a backpack. When the baby cries, they stop to breastfeed and/or feed him or her easily accessible solid foods—like potatoes or gelatina (jello). Now full, the baby refuses to breastfeed as much, or eat nutritious foods given at a later time. This continuous cycle has led to a serious anemia and growth-stunting problem for children under five. In fact, 56.3% of children 6-36 months in the Cusco region are anemic and 18.2% of children under 5 in the Cusco region are chronically malnourished (MINSA).
We decided to focus our July training on infant feeding to address this serious problem, beginning by emphasizing the importance of exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months of age. As we have learned with previous trainings, promotoras absorb information best when they understand the “why” behind the concept. We thus stressed the importance of waiting to add solid foods until 6 months to avoid diarrhea, to fully obtain all the protective factors from breast milk, and to wait until the immune and digestive system are further developed.
The next challenge remained: what foods should we be feeding our babies? I visited mercados in Ollantaytambo and Urubamba to talk to vendors about what foods they would recommend for infants aged six months and older. I also recorded prices and took pictures of foods to ensure that the comida we used was recognizable, accessible, and affordable. My mercado investigation revealed that babies are capable of receiving all their micronutrients from available foods; however, many local mothers thought that pure de papa (or pureed potatoes) was the best food to feed infants. For this reason, we emphasized the importance of a balanced diet, and explained why carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals, and fats were all equally necessary to aid in the proper growth and development of babies. To practice this habit, we used pictures of foods from the mercado (both healthy and unhealthy foods) and each promotora made a plate they might choose to cook at home for his or her baby.
Afterwards, we all practiced making a healthy puree for babies between six and eight months. The promotoras not only made delicious, healthy purees, but also enjoyed passing around their bowls so everyone could try the recipes. By the end, there wasn’t any puree left!
This emphasis on complementary feeding is just the stepping stone to fight anemia, but if the promotoras can transfer the knowledge of balanced diets to their communities, we will be well on our way to lowering the number of stunted children in the Cusco region.
-Written by Tanya Shah